The Zen of landscaping

A Linden Hills yard transforms into an urban retreat

Photo courtesy of TerraVista Landscape & Design

Wayne Thompson just didn’t want to mow the lawn.

He and his wife, Christiana Kippels, decided a few years after moving into their home in Linden Hills in 1994 to eradicate the grass in their tiny front yard.

They planted a river birch tree. As it grew and spread, they hired a landscaping firm to plan and install a colorful shade garden and more trees — including a magnolia, a Louisa flowering crabapple and an Acrocona Norway spruce. The crabapple’s branches take a 90-degree angle before cascading toward the ground, and the spruce’s graceful branches produce reddish cones. Thompson and Kippels, both nature lovers, could relax on the porch, enjoy their garden and chat with passersby.

Many other projects ensued as the couple, who work in advertising, remodeled their 1912 home, but Thompson was still stuck mowing the sloping back yard.

Finally, it was the back yard’s turn for a makeover. Thompson and Kippels had latticework installed to enclose the base of the deck, and hired Minneapolis firm TerraVista Landscape & Design, which specializes in transforming compact urban yards.

They also knew something had to change about the portion of the yard that just beyond the base of the elevated deck, but they weren’t sure what. Thompson described it as “kind of a dead area” that retained the metal poles of a long-ago clothesline.

Baldus took some cues from the front yard. To create a Japanese Zen garden aesthetic, he sourced Mesabi boulders to form a retaining wall and four steps at the base of the area. The boulders contain iron, which allows them to rust and contributes to the Japanese look, Thompson said.

Baldus also created a fountain from a tall slab of basalt. He installed an underground reservoir to feed it continuously, causing the water to splash onto a smaller stone at the base and into the Dresser trap-rock gravel that covers the surface of the area.

Baldus planted a Japanese maple in a corner opposite the fountain, and a handful of Iris ensata “variegata” a Japanese variety that produces purple blooms.

“It was just perfect,” Thompson said. “It became this really private little area that you could walk down to and you didn’t feel like you were under the deck.”

The couple also wanted a lovely, soothing view of the yard from their deck, including some plants that would add color and interest in winter. This portion of the yard slopes down to a detached garage. It was partially shaded by neighbors’ trees, but not as shady as the front.

Here, Baldus created another garden lining the fence that leads to the garage. For the colors and shapes his clients requested, he planted a variety of trees, including weeping hemlock, ginkgo, concolor fir, and Horstmann’s Silberlocke fir. To draw the eye toward the ground and maintain some color in winter, Baldus planted a trio of Fothergilla Blue Shadow shrubs, a gold mop false cypress, a Globe blue spruce, a dwarf white pine and some arborvitae.

For summer color and blooms, the garden has peonies, astilbe, P.JM. (common purple) rhododendrons and coral bells. A star magnolia that will grow to 8 by 8 feet yields delightful white flowers, Baldus said.

Along the fence, he put in for summer color. Near the garage, he finished the landscape with quaking aspens, a Japanese maple and three freestanding Mesabi boulders.

A cut New York bluestone forms a path that leads from the garage side door into the garden, and from the small semi-circular section of grass to the Zen garden steps.

Baldus used pine bark mulch to fill in the garden because it is long-lasting and adds a bit of acidity to the soil.

These clients had a strong aesthetic and didn’t want a run-of-the-mill garden, according to Baldus.

“They wanted something real unusual so we started choosing unusual species, stuff that you don’t see around a lot,” he said. “Part of that was influenced by what was up in front in the yard.”

When the back yard was complete, Thompson added landscape lighting. He and Kippels eventually converted the deck into a screened porch, which became their favorite part of the house, thanks to the backyard transformation.

“It really turned out kind of beyond our wildest dreams,” Thompson said. “Neither one of is really gardeners.”

Thompson still didn’t want to mow, but the new landscaping had a surprising effect on him. He was not content to merely sit and admire it all.

“I really got into maintaining everything and I just really looked forward to it,” Thompson said. “It’s a good-for-the- soul kind of thing.”

Last year, the couple found a larger house on a wooded lot Chanhassen and sold their Linden Hills home. They found it difficult to part with the garden.

“It kind of broke our hearts when we moved,” Thompson said. “But someone else gets to enjoy it now, which is great.”